Fade to White

Skin Bleaching and the Rejection of Blackness

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Twice a day, Kevin daly follows a bleaching regimen that includes steroid soap, a lightening shampoo, and two hydroquinone creams.
photos: Serene Ford
LAST MAY, veteran boxer Percy Oblitei Commey became the laughing stock of his country. The Ghanaian fighter not only lost his belt in a national super-featherweight bout, but he was also shamed before a championship audience who watched his skin quite literally peel away. As reported in the Ghana News Agency, Oblitei Commey's opponent opened a cut on his right cheek that cornermen just couldn't close. Then his nostrils and his right ear tore open, leaving him bleeding profusely, only to be jeered by the hostile crowd.

The reason his skin fell apart? He'd been bleaching it, a popular treatment in Ghana and other West African countries, to trade his dark appearance for a lighter one.

In a country where the people are dark and one's heritage is one's pride, Ghanaians are always happy to share a bit of their cultural history. Yet many are quietly continuing a chapter by fading to white. Locked in a practice that has gone on since the Europeans arrived in the 1500s, Ghanaians have been trying to lighten their skin, using various home recipes and commercial creams. "[Skin bleaching has] been going on for a long time, actually," says tour guide Nii Kpakpo Alloeei-Cofie. "I must say it began from when we had the British ruling over us."

These creams have made big news across Africa in recent years. Last May, Kenya banned the sale of many skin-bleaching products, a move followed by Uganda in August. The year before, skin specialists in Senegal also called for a ban. None of this has slowed the demand, in Africa or elsewhere. In November, a new cream called Solaquin hit the market.

Ghanaian officials have also been trying—without success—to ban bleaching products, while mounting public service campaigns about the harmful effects, including skin disease, that can come with stripping your natural pigmentation. The administration is helped by a small, determined group of African nationalists who are very vocal about the cultural regression of bleaching. They stand against the growing community of those seeking increased self-esteem in a lighter, brighter self.

The fight against skin bleaching is not limited to Africa. Hydroquinone, the leading ingredient found in most modern skin-lightening products, was first tried in the 1930s by some African Americans who found they could use it to fade discoloration. The chemical works by hindering the creation of melanin, causing dark colors to fade as older cells are replaced by bleached ones. Thought by some scientists to be a possible carcinogen, the substance is also used in the development of photos. Manufacturers of hydroquinone creams insist they're safe, but in 1995 then New York commissioner of consumer affairs Mark Green called for a ban on them.

The desire for lighter skin has proved tough to quell. Ghana won its independence in 1957, but many there get their views on skin color from a far earlier time. In 1844, local authorities and the queen signed an agreement stating that the British would protect what were then considered the thousand states of the Gold Coast. "At this point in time, people began to feel the European was superior to them," Alloeei-Cofie explains. "I mean, why not? All the fashionable things was based on European product. It became fashionable to wear European clothing, it became fashionable to try and speak like a European, and obviously it became fashionable for ladies and gentlemen to want to feel and look like Europeans."

This fashion craze can be seen in various parts of Ghana, but most notably in the capital, Accra. Salons offering beauty to Ghanaians use light women with long straight hair in their advertisements. Although the majority of these pictures don't represent the average Ghanaian woman, they seem to represent what some Africans deem beautiful. "I started bleaching because I wanted to get a new face," says 25-year-old Cecilia Animahh. "I wanted to look attractive."

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The Great White Hope

"For a long time I never saw a black doll before," Alloeei-Cofie recalls. "All the dolls you see are white. All the dolls you see have long straight hair." Ghanaians aren't shy about saying their countrymen bleach because of identity crises. They will tell you that in their patriarchal world, women do not feel attractive unless they can lighten up.

While Selina Margaret Oppong, 50, says she started bleaching "with the aim to brighten up the skin," Maama Adwoa, a hairstylist who's against the practice, believes women fade "because they think they might look beautiful." Cecilia Animahh is even more blunt. "In Ghana," she says, "some of the men want bleaching girls."

What's ironic is that in Europe and the U.S., many lighter-skinned people intentionally tan to get a flawless, bronze complexion. On the shelves of our drugstores, we can find sunless tanning agents. Tanning salons can be found from 86th Street to the Village. And let's not forget the various cosmetics available in the form of powders and foundations that promise a healthy, golden glow.

But while the West nurtures a white culture in which pale is bad, for many in West Africa bleaching provides an escape mechanism—the lighter you are, the more attractive and financially secure you must be. Oblitei Commey and numerous others are believed to use skin-lightening products as a way to boost their social status. "The villagers normally do [it] because they think if you bleach your skin, you're somebody, you're well-to-do," scoffs Maama Adwoa. "It costs a lot of money."

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